‘The Boys’ Club’: sexism in the legal fraternity

The thirty of us were sitting in a private dining room at Friday’s Riverside, emptying flutes of Moet et Chandon and licking our plates clean of medium-rare Wagyu steak jus. Floor-to-ceiling glass doors led out to a tiled balcony and mini-bar that overlooked the Brisbane river. It was an early afternoon at the end of semester, a very large tab was poised ready to open at 5:00pm, and we had reached the awards part of the party.

The certificates were supposed to be a bit of a joke. The University of Queensland Law Society ‘Most Likely To Have Had Sex On The Society Office Couch’ Award went to some dude I didn’t know. There was one about netball or something. Several about drinking. I got a sarcastic one applauding me for meeting attendance and punctuality (I was pretty proud of that). This was my third year in law, and since I had directed the annual Law Revue comedy sketch show, I’d landed an Executive position on the society table. It was supposedly a prestigious thing, something for the CV, but I had little interest in the politics. Too many ‘Type A’ personalities locked in small spaces together.

The last certificate was presented by the leaving President, Chad, to the incoming President, Tom. It was an award for ‘Being In Charge Of The Best Ever Boys’ Club’.

I looked across the table to my friend Holly. Had I heard that right? I know these things were supposed to be funny joke-y things, but what the fuck is so funny about systematic ingrained sexism in the legal fraternity? We exchanged questioning frowning head-shakes then looked around the room. It was about 60/40 females to males. A pocket of kids in the corner were pissing themselves laughing as Tom got up and shook Chad’s hand. Everyone else seemed to be laughing too. Intelligent young women in Vice-President positions rolling their eyes in jest. “Oh you silly boys!” their eyes said.

Despite there being more females than males enrolled in law school, there hasn’t been a female president of the society since 2008. I wonder what she’d had to do to command respect in The Best Ever Boys’ Club.

I complain now, but at the time I didn’t do anything. I feel a bit shitty about it even now. Why didn’t I say a word? Partially because the event was celebrating the end of the year and our roles in the Society, so it was kind of too late to protest. Partially because there’s a feminist in the law school called Tanya who always points out issues in the way things happen and gets generally shat on for it. When she posts feminist comments on Facebook things degenerate into a cyber witch-hunt freakishly quickly. I was looking around that room waiting for one of the girls to protest – were they all waiting for someone else to protest, or did they just not care at all?

When I did my summer clerkship (a paid internship that will hopefully lead to a graduate job with a law firm), 11 out of the 12 clerks were female. I recall looking around that room and feeling pride swell in my chest. I imagined us all having a secret hand-shake for the Sisterhood Of Smart Girls Who Aren’t Ashamed To Be Ambitious. Then we received information folders about the firm, and I saw that in contrast to the room I was sitting in, less than a quarter of the partners were female. I spoke to one of the female partners and asked her how she juggled such a demanding position with the two small children I saw in a photo on her desk. She replied that her husband was a stay-at-home dad.

That isn’t an option for most women, let alone most women in the legal profession. That’s probably never gonna be on the menu for the girls sitting in that Friday’s Riverside dining room, or for me.

At the end of the awards I felt a bit ashamed because I’d let Tom, the incoming president and recipient of the ‘Boys Club’ award, pay for the champagne we had at our table. I couldn’t afford my own champagne, but he could afford to pay for other people’s. Maybe that’s also why I didn’t say anything – I didn’t want to get pissed at the guy who was filling my glass. What does that say? In order to uphold my principles, should I go without champagne in life? Should I wait until I can afford my own champagne THEN try to make changes to the industry? If I work that hard to get to that position to drink that champagne, will I have sacrificed the possibility of family?

I graduate at the end of this year. I’ve got a sweet graduate job lined up for January 2015 as a judge’s associate, and I should feel like I have my whole professional life fanning out in front of me, ready for the taking. How I actually feel, though, is tired and nervous. The evidence presented to me thus far is that most of the barristers are male, and most of their secretaries are female. That most the partners are male, and most of the clerks are female. That most of the judges are male, and most of their associates are female.

I used to hear people say “it’s just going to take time for old opinions to change”, and I used to believe it. Then I sat in that riverside banquet room listening to my generation, the next generation of barristers and partners and judges, encourage and accept a completely unveiled appreciation of ‘The Boys’ Club’. My faith in feminism in this industry is dwindling.

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